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There from the start: Fathers, children and chess

They may not have been very strong players themselves, but many can claim credit for teaching the game’s greatest stars how to set up the board and the difference between a pin and a fork.

With Father’s Day looming, this is an apt time to celebrate the contributions of the game’s chess dads — as instructors, financiers, chauffeurs and progenitors of offspring who, in a few lucky cases, go on to heights in the game the father could never imagine.

Unlike, say, Central European politics or stock car racing, chess is not given to family dynasties. There are very few “nepo babies” in the history of the game, since success is measured not by bloodlines but by rating points and tournament wins. (The DMV’s own GM Larry Kaufman, a former senior world champion, and son Ray Kaufman, an international master, are among the rare exceptions to the rule.)

Perhaps the strongest chess-playing father of a world champion was Vasily Osipovich Smyslov, a “first category” master in the old Soviet system who passed on his love for both chess and music to the famous son and namesake, Vasily Smyslov, the titleholder from 1957 to 1958 and one of the top players of the mid-20th century. The son would go on to pen a heartfelt tribute to his father’s lasting impact on his style and love for the game in his great anthology, “Smyslov’s 125 Selected Games.”

The high point of Smyslov pere’s playing career was no doubt today’s first game, when he downed future world champion Alexander Alekhine in a strong tournament in St. Petersburg in 1912.

Alekhine, already a promising candidate master at the age of 20 when this game was played, gets a nice position with White out of this English, but allows Smyslov to climb back into the game with some uncharacteristically unambitious play: 17. 0-0?! (the mature Alekhine would likely have gone in for the more forcing 17. Nd6 Ba6 18. Qd2 a4 19. 0-0, retaining the initiative) Qe6 18. d4?! (this also just helps Black out; better was 18. Rb1 Rxb1 19. Qxb1 f5 20. Nd6 Ne7 21. Qb2, and White is still calling the shots) Ba6! 19. dxe5 Nxe5.

Black has equalized comfortably and now White embarks on an ill-fated exchange sacrifice to gin up a kingside attack: 21. f5!? Qh6 22. h3 Ne3 23. Qd4 Nxf1!? (even better may have been 23 … Nc2! 24. Qc3 Nxa1 25. Rxa1 a4, and White’s compensation looks thin) 24. Rxf1 Bxe2 25. Rf4.

White’s kingside array seems formidable, but Black smartly seeks counterplay with 25 … Rb3! 26. Kf2?! (Kh2 was better) Rd3 27. Qb2 (Rh4?? Qe3+ and wins) Bd1!, gumming up the coordination of White’s attack.

Smyslov exploits one last White lapse to carve out a winning endgame: 31. Qc1? (see diagram; Smyslov in his own annotations on the game says 31. Qe1! is White’s last chance to hold the game, though with 31 … Rd3, Black remains clearly better) Rxg2+! 32. Kxg2 Bxf5!, and the bishop is immune from capture because of the pin on the White rook. As the winner succinctly explained: “Black returns the exchange, wins the strong pawn on f5, denies his opponent any attack, and secures an ending with two extra pawns.”

The rest is a mop-up operation, especially after Black mobilizes his last piece with 37. g5 Rb8!. Smyslov sidesteps one last swindle to claim a very impressive scalp: 41. Qg1 (praying for 41 … Qxc5?? 42. Re8+ Qf8 43. Rxf8+ Kxf8 44. Qc5+ Kg8 45. Qxa5, turning the tables) Rxc3!, and White resigned in light of 42. Rxc3 Qe5+ 43. Kf2 Qxc3, losing a piece.


Some lucky fathers have also passed along their love of the game to their daughters as well, starting with the famous case of Laszlo Polgar and his remarkable daughters Judit, Sophia and Susan. German GM Thomas Paehtz has the rare distinction of siring two remarkable players — Thomas Jr., who won the German youth championship in 2001, and Elisabeth Paehtz, a former world junior girls champion who last year became the first German-born woman to earn the title of grandmaster.

The elder Thomas Paehtz has had a remarkable career of his own, winning both the East German and unified German national title and competing regularly in strong events across the continent in a career that has spanned five decades. As in today’s first game, a signature Paehtz victory involves beating a future world champion, this time 15-year-old rising Bulgarian star Veselin Topalov at a 1990 event. Black may have unsettled his young opponent with a rare sideline in the Tarrasch French, resolving the opening’s trademark central tensions early with 5. Ngf3 c4!?.

Black manages to get a comfortable position out of the opening, and as with Alekhine-Smyslov, benefits from some unenergetic play from his young adversary: 14. Nf1!? (Nh4 Be7 15. g3 kept the balance) Qb8! 15. Ne3 b5 16. Ra2 Be4, and Black’s pieces have far more scope than their White counterparts.

Black gets a juicy target after 17. g3? (h3 was safer) f5 18. Ng5 f4!, looking to bust up the White defensive fortress. The aggression pays off after 22. Bg4? (strongly indicated here is clearing the rook’s defensive line with 22. Bc1! h6 23. Ne3!, meeting 23 … hxg5 with 24. Nxd5! Nxd5?? 25. Bxd5+ Kh8 26. Bxg5 Rg6 27. Qh5+ and wins) Bxg3! (Qc8 is also strong, but Black’s sacrifice forces Topalov on the defense for the rest of the game) 23. hxg3 Qxg3 24. Bxf5 Rxf5 25. Bc1 (already the only move that doesn’t lose) Raf8, and Black’s pieces swarm the wide-open kingside.

Black’s pressure pays off quickly: 28. Qe2? (Qd1! Rf2 29. Rxf2 Rxf2 30. Nef4 keeps White — barely — in the game) Ng6! 29. Qxb5 (might as well grab some souvenirs as the ship is going down) Nh4 (with the threat of 30 … Nxg2 31. Rxg2 Qxe1+) 30. Re3 Nf3+, and even an exchange sacrifice can’t save White: 31. Rxf3 (Kf1 Nh2+ 32. Ke2 Qxg2+ 33. Kd3 Qxa2 cleans house) Qxf3 32. Ngf4 Rxe6! (again, as in the first game, Black returns the material surplus to secure the win) 33. Nxe6 Qg3+, and Topalov conceded just ahead of 34. Rg2 Qe1+ 35. Kh2 Rh5 mate.


Two big tournaments this month resulted in two big wins for American stars.

IM Anna Zatonskih, the lowest-rated player in the field, clinched the 3rd Cairns Cup with a round to spare. The 10-player invitational at the Chess Club of St. Louis included some of the strongest female players in the game. Swiss GM Alexandra Kosteniuk finished second, a full point back of the winner.

And GM Hikaru Nakamura defeated fellow American star GM Fabiano Caruana in the ninth and final round to score a come-from-behind win in the 11th Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger last week. Former world champion and hometown hero Magnus Carlsen, still the planet’s highest-rated player despite abdicating his throne earlier this year, finished sixth in the elite, ten-grandmaster field.

(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)

Alekhine-V.O. Smyslov, St. Petersburg Chess Society Tournament, St. Petersburg, 1912

1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. g3 Bc5 4. Bg2 Nc6 5. a3 a5 6. d3 O-O 7. Nh3 Ne7 8. Bg5 Ng6 9. Bxf6 Qxf6 10. Ne4 Qe7 11. Nxc5 Qxc5 12. Ng5 c6 13. Ne4 Qe7 14. c5 b6 15. b4 bxc5 16. bxc5 Rb8 17. O-O Qe6 18. d4 Ba6 19. dxe5 Nxe5 20. f4 Ng4 21. f5 Qh6 22. h3 Ne3 23. Qd4 Nxf1 24. Rxf1 Bxe2 25. Rf4 Rb3 26. Kf2 Rd3 27. Qb2 Bd1 28. Qb1 Rd5 29. Nc3 Rd2+ 30. Kg1 Bc2 31. Qc1 Rxg2+ 32. Kxg2 Bxf5 33. g4 Be6 34. Kg3 Qg5 35. Qe3 h5 36. h4 Qg6 37. g5 Rb8 38. Rf3 Rb3 39. Qc1 Bg4 40. Re3 Qf5 41. Qg1 Rxc3 White resigns.

Topalov-Paehtz Sr., Altensteig, West Germany, July 1990

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 c5 4. exd5 exd5 5. Ngf3 c4 6. b3 cxb3 7. axb3 Nc6 8. Be2 Bb4 9. O-O Nge7 10. Ra4 a5 11. Bb2 Bf5 12. c3 Bd6 13. Re1 O-O 14. Nf1 Qb8 15. Ne3 b5 16. Ra2 Be4 17. g3 f5 18. Ng5 f4 19. Ng2 fxg3 20. fxg3 Bf5 21. Bf3 Rf6 22. Bg4 Bxg3 23. hxg3 Qxg3 24. Bxf5 Rxf5 25. Bc1 Raf8 26. Qd2 h6 27. Ne6 R8f6 28. Qe2 Ng6 29. Qxb5 Nh4 30. Re3 Nf3+ 31. Rxf3 Qxf3 32. Ngf4 Rxe6 33. Nxe6 Qg3+ White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at

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